Luke Rockhold (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC Fight Night 116 Preview and Predictions

The Steel City will host the latest edition of UFC Fight Night, and it’s fitting that some of the promotion’s hardest hitters are coming to Pittsburgh to ply their wares.

The main event of UFC Fight Night 116 is an interesting middleweight bout between a former champion seeking redemption and a former double champion looking to make a name for himself on the sport’s biggest stage.

Luke Rockhold is coming off a prolonged hiatus after losing the UFC middleweight title to Michael Bisping last year. Rockhold was dealing with an injured knee in that fight. Now, he is chomping at the bit to get back in the Octagon and get the rematch he believes he deserves. First, he has to get past David Branch, the former World Series of Fighting middleweight and light heavyweight champion. Branch was victorious in his return to the UFC earlier this year, but he had to grind out a split-decision victory.


The co-headliner is almost guaranteed to end in a finish. Thiago Alves gives welterweight another try against Mike Perry. Alves almost always delivers an entertaining performance, and all 10 of Perry’s career victories have come by knockout. It’s probably a safe bet that you shouldn’t use the restroom during this fight, as you will likely miss someone going to sleep.

The UFC’s latest Fight Night offering features other fighters who are capable of securing a finish, including Hector Lombard, Anthony Hamilton and Uriah Hall.

The UFC Fight Pass preliminary card begins at 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, Sept. 16, followed by the Fox Sports 1 prelims at 8 p.m. ET and the main card on FS1 at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Chris Huntemann and Zach Aittama are here to get you ready for the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Luke Rockhold’s first fight since his title loss comes against Dave Branch, the former two-division WSOF champ. In his return to the UFC, Branch looked less than stellar against Krzysztof Jotko. Which one of these men gets back on track?

Aittama: Rockhold makes his way back to the Octagon after being brutally knocked out and losing his title to Michael Bisping. The former champ was originally scheduled to meet Chris Weidman for the second time, but Weidman was forced from the title fight with an injury and Bisping entered the picture as Rockhold’s new opponent with 17 days until the fight. Bisping landed a shocking left hook over Rockhold’s right shoulder that stunned the champion. The Brit didn’t hesitate to jump on Rockhold with a series of powerful punches that forced the referee to step in and end the contest.

Rockhold took Bisping lightly, which most certainly could have played a major role in his undoing. He had already defeated Bisping less than two years prior, and let’s just say the bout wasn’t exactly a good look for the Brit. Rockhold dropped Bisping with a kick and locked up a one-handed guillotine choke to get the finish. In the rematch at UFC 199, Rockhold was too confident when he stepped into the cage. He even said so himself following the contest. Rockhold was pushing the pace, but not remaining cognizant of his own defense and Bisping’s much-improved striking ability.

Branch didn’t look terrible in his return to the UFC after six years outside of the promotion. The Renzo Gracie-trained fighter may have won a split decision, but I had him taking two of the three rounds without too much argument. He was able to take Jotko down a few times throughout the bout. Branch looked his best in the first round when he was able to avoid Jotko’s striking from the southpaw stance and land his own takedown, top control, and some heavy ground-and-pound. Branch did a good job of working in his jab and kicks on the feet, but he looked confused at times. Jotko was able to land some strong kicks and made Branch continuously shoot in for takedowns. Even when Branch could get in on the legs, Jotko was quick to defend and get back to his feet. Branch controlled the fight on the cage and did land some knees and elbows against the fence. Branch got the win, but his title hopes were still far off following his first fight back inside the Octagon.

Unfortunately for Branch, Rockhold is a bad style match-up. Despite the former champ’s long layoff due to a knee injury, he should be the heavy favorite in this fight. Rockhold is a southpaw who will take advantage of the prominent tools, the left straight, right hook, and left middle and high kicks. Rockhold mixes up his offensive looks and often throws kicks in with his punching combinations, a more rarely seen technical level than your standard MMA fight. Even if Branch gets the fight to the ground, Rockhold is a wizard on the mat.

Branch could find some success early. However, over the course of five rounds, Rockhold will find a home for his strikes and put himself back on the map as a contender for the middleweight belt.

Huntemann: Branch is one of the more underrated fighters in all of MMA, frankly (shameless plug alert!). Scoff all you want at the quality inside and outside the cage in the former WSOF, but Branch did hold the league’s middleweight and light heavyweight titles simultaneously. Such an accomplishment is not easy, regardless of the promotion. Plus, the WSOF gave the UFC Justin Gaethje, who made one of the best debuts in recent memory over the summer. The WSOF obviously was doing something right.

Branch’s close win over Jotko shouldn’t necessarily signal that he was just a big fish in a small pond in the WSOF and will struggle on a bigger stage. Jotko is a tough dude. At 19-2, he is no slouch, and that means that Branch gave him only his second career loss. Branch has no problem grinding out the tough wins. However, as my colleague suggested, he has drawn a bad card with Rockhold.

Rockhold looks supremely motivated to get back to the top in the middleweight division as quickly and devastatingly as possible. Every interview he’s done and every piece of footage we’ve seen shows a guy who has a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder after dropping the belt to Bisping. Rockhold is pissed off. Given his natural ability in the Octagon, that’s a deadly combination.

Branch is tough enough and Rockhold might be rusty enough at the onset to allow this fight to go beyond three rounds. However, it won’t go the distance. Rockhold shakes off the rust and finishes Branch to stake his claim to a rematch for the belt.

The main card of this Fight Night event features a number of fighters who are on the cusp of contendership. At welterweight, Mike Perry and Kamaru Usman are fighting in separate bouts. At lightweight, Gregor Gillespie is finally getting a little piece of the spotlight. At heavyweight, it’s Justin Ledet with an opportunity to shine. Which of these men will score breakthrough wins on Saturday?

Huntemann: As much as I dislike Perry personally because of his proven dalliances with racist behavior, it’s hard to dispute his talent. He has 10 professional wins, and all 10 came via knockout. He’s facing Thiago Alves, who will serve as Perry’s toughest test to date.

Fighting at welterweight seems to fit Alves the best, and he’s put on some exciting performances in the past against guys like Martin Kampmann and Carlos Condit. But in that fight against Condit, Alves’ face was literally rearranged and showed that when he goes toe-to-toe with a proven striker, his risk of being involved in a finish increases exponentially.

This is Perry’s coming-out party. He’ll defeat Alves in an entertaining bout. It pains me to say that, given how Perry chooses to conduct himself personally, but we’re all objective analysts here, right?

Aittama: I want to piggyback on my colleague’s comments about Perry. He has said some things that will follow him in a negative light for the rest of his career. With that said, you can’t deny his natural power-punching ability. I say that with a caveat, however. All three of his stoppage wins were against opponents who have chin issues or who fought him in a manner where they were far too aggressive. That’s not to say he doesn’t possess fight-ending power — he most certainly does — but let’s shine some light on his only UFC loss, where he didn’t engage and was picked apart by the better kickboxer.

Alves is a better striker. The Brazilian had a serious brain condition and looked beyond drawn out when he attempted to cut to lightweight, but we’re also talking about one of the most dangerous kickers and, quite frankly, strikers in the welterweight division. Alves is definitely not the fighter he once was, but he looked much better in his recent showdown with former middleweight title challenger Patrick Cote, where Alves took a unanimous decision in a dominant effort.

Alves could be dropped and potentially finished, but who’s the last guy to stop Alves standing? Oh wait, it’s never happened. Yes, Perry has serious power in his punches, but let’s not forget that Alves is one fight removed from dropping Cote twice. But I digress from the question at hand.

Which fighter is primed to have a breakout performance? It has to be Usman, but it won’t be an easy fight for him by any means. Usman is one of the best athletes and hyped prospects in the UFC. His athletic advantages open up so many opportunities on fight night. With the proper coaching, he is on track to contend for a championship sooner rather than later.

Usman meets a tough opponent, Sergio Moraes, who has continued to rise up the welterweight rankings with win after win. Usman will have to be wary of the high-level grappling and submission game of Moraes. This is Usman’s fight to lose. He often dictates where the fight takes place, and he’ll to do the same in this match-up.

Azunna Anyanwu — do we need to know this name?

Aittama: Anyanwu actually won his fight in spectacular fashion during week one of Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contenders Series, but he wasn’t chosen for a contract. Anyanwu was in a tough fight with Bellator veteran Greg Rebello, who is a southpaw. Rebello’s straight left hand, right hook and uppercut landed throughout the fight, which is likely why Anyanwu wasn’t signed initially. Despite ending the fight with a monstrous overhand right, Anyanwu had trouble getting around Rebello’s striking in the first two rounds. He made some adjustments in the second frame, including beginning to throw more to the body with his lead right straight and cross. Anyanwu timed one of Rebello’s hard left hands and responded by dipping his head to the left while throwing his right hand over the left arm of Rebello. The huge overhand floored Rebello and moved Anyanwu up to a five-fight winning streak.

Anyanwu has above-average boxing and the power to finish almost anyone in the heavyweight division. The Philadelphian doesn’t have much in the way of high-level competition on his resume, which could be his downfall on less than a week’s notice against the undefeated Justin Ledet. The Texan has already made an impression in the UFC with victories over Chase Sherman and Mark Godbeer. Ledet was scheduled to make his return against Dmitry Sosnovskiy, but the Russian heavyweight was forced to pull out this week.

Anyanwu has a chance to cause a big upset in this fight if he stayed in shape while waiting for a second opportunity on DWTNCS. His massive frame and pressure-first style is certainly welcome in a heavyweight division looking for attractions. His age, 36, will mean his time is limited inside the Octagon. Even if he loses to Ledet this weekend, he looks like a fighter who can make some noise with the right match-up.

Huntemann: Welp, I don’t watch the DWTNCS. Mainly, it’s because I don’t feel like shelling out 10 bucks a month for UFC Fight Pass — yes, I’m cheap, oh well — so I guess I’ll just have to take my colleague’s word for it on this one.

The UFC heavyweight division needs all the new blood and fresh contenders it can get. So let’s hope that Anyanwu can enjoy immediate success and make an immediate impact in the UFC’s biggest division. I will say that I am a fan of Anyanwu’s nickname — “8th Wonder.” Nicely done, kid. Nicely done.

Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?

Huntemann: The featured prelim bout between Tony Martin and Olivier Aubin-Mercier.

Martin has rebounded nicely from a rough start to his UFC career. He has won three straight. Mercier has only lost twice since debuting in the UFC as part of The Ultimate Fighter: Nations in 2014. Mercier has also won two straight fights by submission.

Both guys are ready to make a move in a still-crowded lightweight division. This could be a really solid, well-fought bout.

Aittama: That fight tdoes stand out. Both men have a propensity for exciting fights, which leads me to my own sleeper fight: the middleweight showdown between Krzysztof Jotko and Uriah Hall.

Hall and Jotko have been inside the UFC’s top 10 at certain points in the past few years.

Jotko has brought more consistency to the table in his UFC career, as well as continued improvements in his game. He had his five-fight winning streak snapped by David Branch in his last outing. Along that stretch, Jotko really showed marked improvements and picked up wins over Thales Leites, Tamdan McCrory, Scott Askham and Brad Scott. At 28, Jotko is still a prospect to watch in the middleweight division.

Hall, 33, has lost his past three fights, albeit against top-10 competition in Gegard Mousasi, Derek Brunson and current interim champion Robert Whittaker. Hall’s last win came against Mousasi, who was thoroughly out-classing Hall until the Jamaican landed a well-placed spinning back kick to the chin of Mousasi. Hall had to throw everything at his opponent to finally get the stoppage. He has had some brilliant moments in his career, but he’s also had some very underwhelming ones against the likes of Rafael Natal. If Hall is hoping for a career resurgence, it has to happen in this fight.

This fight will have some contentious moments. However, Jotko is the better overall fighter. He will find the openings to get the victory over three rounds.

Pair this card with…

Aittama: I would say to hunker down for a great day of college football before the fights, but when your top two seeded teams are playing Tulane and Colorado State, maybe you should be more productive with your day. However you spend your Saturday, I would revolve your evening around the fights on Fox Sports 1. There are some great fights on the card, which leads me to believe this event could be one of those Fight Night cards that delivers despite lacking “the big names.”

Huntemann: Since this card is taking place in Pittsburgh, this sort of writes itself, doesn’t it? Grab a Primanti Bros. sandwich, pop open a cold Yuengling, don your favorite Steelers jersey (I’m a Patriots fan though, so … yeah) and help commemorate the beginning of the NFL season by watching some fights in the Steel City.

Fight Picks

Fight Aittama’s Pick Huntemann’s Pick
Main Card (Fox Sports 1, 10 p.m. ET)
MW: Luke Rockhold vs. Dave Branch Rockhold Rockhold
WW: Thiago Alves vs. Mike Perry Alves Perry
MW: Hector Lombard vs. Anthony Smith Lombard Lombard
LW: Gregor Gillespie vs. Jason Gonzalez Gillespie Gillespie
WW: Kamaru Usman vs. Sergio Moraes Usman Usman
HW: Justin Ledet vs. Azunna Anyanwu Ledet Ledet
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)
LW: Olivier Aubin-Mercier vs. Tony Martin Martin Aubin-Mercier
HW: Daniel Spitz vs. Anthony Hamilton Hamilton Hamilton
MW: Krzysztof Jotko vs. Uriah Hall Jotko Jotko
BW: Luke Sanders vs. Felipe Arantes Sanders Sanders
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 7:30 p.m. ET)
LW: Gilbert Burns vs. Jason Saggo Burns Burns